LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) -On the surface, Louisville's two-game skid to end the season didn't hurt the Cardinals, who are a No. 3 seed in the East Region in the NCAA tournament.
Don't tell that to coach Rick Pitino, who sees nothing but roadblocks between his team and another Final Four appearance.
``Somebody said to me, 'You'd have to play (North) Carolina,''' Pitino said of a potential meeting in the final eight. ``We should only be so lucky.''
The Cardinals (24-8) open the tournament on Friday against Boise State in Birmingham, Ala. Though the Broncos are making their first tournament appearance in 14 years, they start four seniors and play the kind of up-tempo basketball that has caused Louisville problems.
Pitino likened the Broncos to BYU, which beat the Cardinals 78-76 in November.
Louisville played that game without injured seniors David Padgett and Juan Palacios. They're both healthy now, leaving Pitino optimistic despite two tough losses - one to Georgetown in the regular season finale, the other to Pittsburgh in the Big East tournament quarterfinals - that blunted the momentum they built during an undefeated February.
``We feel great about our team,'' Pitino said. ``Even in losses we've played good. The other night against Pittsburgh we played a terrific game, except in overtime we took four challenged shots, which got us behind and eventually led to our demise.''
Though they've shot just 41 percent from the field in their last three games, Pitino refuses to say the Cardinals are in a slump.
``We're not a great shooting team,'' he said. ``With us it's about execution.''
Shooting the ball with a little bit of confidence would help, something Padgett knows his teammates can't afford to lose this late in the season.
``I try to tell these guys, 'The next one's going in.' And that's how you have to think about it,'' Padgett said. ``If you miss a couple in a row you can't start getting tight and nervous and start changing your form.''
The Broncos won the Western Athletic Conference tournament by beating New Mexico State in triple-overtime on Saturday. They're averaging 82 points per game and play with the kind of efficient abandon that can make them a nightmare to defend.
``They're a veteran ballclub, the toughest first-round matchup I've had since I've been coaching,'' Pitino said.
Even with potential games against Oklahoma, Tennessee and North Carolina on the horizon, Pitino said he's not worried about the Cardinals looking ahead. He's got all the proof of how hard the first round can be on videotape in his office.
Four years ago, Pitino remembers fans leaving a selection show party in a rage when the Cardinals - who won the Conference USA title that season - were dropped to a No. 4 seed. They played like a team in a funk for long stretches during their opening round game against Louisiana-Lafayette, holding on for a 68-62 win.
The Cardinals know they can't afford to be similarly distracted against the Broncos.
``It is a lot more serious now, so everything before this is thrown out the window,'' said guard Andre McGee. ``All the mistakes we had and all the losses, none of that really counts.
``Everyone is thrown into the same boat and everybody has the same opportunity.''
It's an opportunity the Cardinals thought may have slipped away in the fall, when injuries to Padgett and Palacios combined with inconsistent play dropped Louisville from the top 10 to out of the polls.
Padgett was supposed to miss the entire season after fracturing his right kneecap on Nov. 18 but came back early, and the Cardinals followed suit. Entering the final weeks of a solid but injury-plagued career, Padgett thinks his team has one more six-game winning streak in reserve.
``We've worked really hard all year and overcome a lot of injuries to get here and we're going to take advantage of the opportunity and try to seize the moment,'' he said. ``We're going to play as hard as we can and hopefully try to make a little bit of a run.''

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